25.4.12

Teddy Wayne - Kapitoil

Rating 7.1

It's hard to find a single drop of oil in Kapitoil, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't read this novel.

Yes, I'm talking to you bankers, speculators, brokers, financial advisers, oligarchs, sheiks, Russian PMs and Iranian presidents, spin doctors, politicians, entrepreneurs, capitalists and anti-capitalists, environmentalists, exploited and exploiters of this world.

I repeat: this book doesn't definitely smell of crude oil. No oil drums involved. No Brent Crude classification diagrams. No gas wells around. No black petroleum stains as bookmarks.
I'm sorry Vladimir and Mahmoud.

Al? Haven't you heard me? There's nothing for you here. 

And yet, let's s Teddy Wayne's first novel is a pretty good one.
Let's take the protagonist, Karim from Qatar (please pronounce it Cutter) also known as "The Dream".
Mr Wayne made him an amazing character with a distinctive personality and a wonderful vocabulary, a geek with a heart, a wizard with a soul.

Whereas contemporary authors like Mohsin Hamid or even Jonathan Safran Foer (yes!) had a similar extended use of monologue for their main characters, but ended up with a boring and unrealistic result, Wayne learned the lesson in a better way. Karim never annoys me. And I am able to understand his behavior, his peculiar logic, the way his moral probity and curiosity are both being challenged by New York City in A.D 1999.



Do you remember all that fear for something called the Millennium Bug?
That's it. Teddy Wayne did and does and he decided to backdate a novel which he could have easily tried to set up on 2010-2011 ten years earlier when NYC was unbroken: I found it an interesting choice.

The cast of American characters surrounding Karim - a Qatariman in New York as Sting would put it -  is chosen very well and highlights the story in a perfect and poignant way. Less appropriated are the two characters left behind in Doha, Karim's father and sister but Mr Wayne mostly keeps them hanging at the telephone.



Surprisingly enough, I would label Kapitoil as a "romantic novel" if any label may be needed.
Because at the end of the day it's Karim sentimental involvement for a workmate (how obvious! You would say. Well. perhaps. But it works) the main plot here.
Yes, of course, there is a sharp criticism to the lack of morality of a certain top financial world caught before 9/11 and well before the crack of Lehman bros and all that came after. And there is also some math every now and then, but not the dry jargon you would expect in the mouth of a banker and a self-taught software engineer.

Quoting Karim, he is very much "the cream of the cream" of a novel written with a clever and well-trained hand. Not a book to worship or one of the most brilliant novels of the last years, but quite certainly a smart, compelling and entertaining reading. And - ok, Al! I will tell them - this novel doesn't pollute the environment like all hydrocarbons do. Well done, Wayne! Don't walk away from this path.

19.4.12

Kurt Vonnegut - Galapagos


Rating 7.3

Galapagos is not your usual cup of tea of a book. Which is pretty much the same comment everyone could make for every novel by *Kurt Vonnegut (he omitted that "Jr" of him since he became rather famous).

And it's true how Vonnegut's lovers can find many of the main obsessions of good old Kurt here. From the likes of the sci-fi novelist *Kilgore Trout to the fascination for long days spent (and fortunes built) in hotel rooms passing through the sentence "and so on".
And yet, being Mr Vonnegut a bit older here than he was when he delivered most of his successful literary production, he had time for rationalize a lot of things in this novel, leaving behind his beloved Trafalmadorians and any interstellar interference on the business of our planet.

The *main narrator here is a ghost and, surprisingly enough, he was never kidnapped by aliens nor discovered to be one. He simply chose to dwell in the boat he helped to build in and he died for. An excellent boat which will last for a single trip sinking in the Pacific Ocean quite soon but, nonetheless will have its share of glory before the end.

What happens in Galapagos is that human beings accidentally start a little innocent nuclear war in 1986 leading to the progressive destruction of their race in a span of a million years time (quite an optimistic view, you have to reckon it!), except for an unexpected, isolated and unheard of colony of descendants left on the rocky shores and deep seas of an island in the Galapagos.
The novel tells how this odd bunch of characters made it to the islands and happens to be a joyful and macabre allegory of Darwinism. Those who happen to be particularly unfortunate specimen of the human race somewhere, could be the cream of evolutionism somewhere else.

Let's take furry women. Or illiterate cannibals.

Vonnegut here seem to unravel the mystery of his plot from its very beginning telling the reader who will die and when and putting stars like this * before the name of those who will succumb.
This stylistic device is such a clear violation of the most elementary rules on keeping the suspense alive that looks bloody ingenious. There is not a single character here the reader is asked to like or identify with because, ultimately, what Vonnegut aims to tell us is that the current human race is a failure.
Those big brains of ours, for example, are not very practical tools for surviving in an unfavourable environment and, moreover they drive us to make many mistakes and stupid actions.

What we will need in one million years is a good, thick natural fur for keeping our body temperature stable protecting our skins from the harsh sun-rays and, above all, a nice set of flippers paired with an efficient aerodynamic skull for fishing our way through survival. This is Galapagos logic. Back to basics, then.


11.4.12

Peter Hessler - Oracle Bones


Rating 7.6

From the tiny photo on the back cover of "Oracle Bones", Peter Hassler looks like a friend of mine, A., when I was at the university.
One day, around 10 years ago, I met this fellow out of our "Media and communication" department and I told him that he should have tried doing some internship in order to get the 5 credits he missed before getting his degree.
I remember how he originally wanted to take part to some sort of seminar on semiotics or something and I insisted that it was a waste of time.
"Oh come on! - I told A. - Do something practical. Why don't you look for a radio, a magazine, a local tv having an internship programme through the department".

I was working for a radio in those days and started deserting most of the university lectures due to my reporting all over the town. I wanted my friends to enjoy something similar rather than got bored over useless theory.
A. listened carefully to me but didn't seem quite sure on taking my words for granted.

A few months later I met A. again at the headquarters of Romano Prodi, a former Italian PM who was campaigning again against Berlusconi. My friend was carrying a big camera and - just like me - had a press pass around his neck. "You see? I followed your tip - he told me - it's just that they needed cameramen rather than reporters but I took the opportunity nonetheless".

Six years later I do write some daily articles from the UK for an Italian newspaper, but get my living thanks to another job which is not related to journalism. My friend A. did so much better. He became the anchorman of prime time news on a regional channel, the host of a popular radio programme and delivered some features for a national television. And he happens to be quite good in what he does.
Things are rather unexpected sometimes.


Peter Hessler has a similar but far more successful story to tell.
He left the US and Missouri when he was still freshly-faced, freshly-graduated at Princeton and 20 something. At that time, young Hessler had only published an extended etnography work on a tiny place named Sikeston somewhere in the States and spent some time in Oxford, UK as an English literature student. As a journalist he was a nobody.

Then, comes the unexpected step. As the same Hessler in this book tells us, he joined the Peace Corps and went to China as a volunteer.
After some months spent teaching English and learning Mandarin in a small town along the shores of mighty river Yangtze in which he was one of the only two foreigners, (he wrote a book about that) Hessler came back to the US.
As in his homecountry, the still freshly-faced but far more experienced was not able to find the job he looked for, he returned to China.

And in all but friendly Bejing, Hessler had more luck than in the US. Working as a humble clipper "the last one they had" for the Wall Street Journal he got money enough for renting a room of his own, wandering around the Chinese capital and spending a lot of time chatting with people in cheap restaurants and cafes.
Sometimes he did some trekking in the countryside brought his own tent and slept outdoors. Sometimes he did some random translation job. Sometimes he looked for an interesting story to cover as a freelance: at first failing quite miserably in this last respect.


I am insisting so much on the author of "Oracle Bones" because this book has very much to do with Peter Hessler. He's all but shy in talking about himself, his successes and his failures, but never intrusive. He doesn't definitely show off.
Still it's from Hessler personal life in Bejing that I learned many interesting things on how China as a nation changed from 2000 onwards.

"Oracle Bones" is a fascinating reading on two levels: in telling how Hessler made it in becoming a famous freelance reporter and in showing many things that happened when PH was writing around, the people he met, the stories he jumped into, the troubles he had with the police and so on.
All tied up with the mail and paper correspondence Hessler kept with some of his former students who seem all very confident and at ease while writing to him about their adult lives. One starts to like and sympathize with these Chinese people who - unlucky choice - are all introduced with their English nicknames.


Albeit a few unfortunate stylistic choices, this is an author who has a great passion, respect and care for China in all of its aspects and is eager to talk Mandarin with common people rather than with politicians or entrepreneurs. Hessler poses many questions to himself and is considerate enough to investigate over Chinese history.
It's "artifacts" the recurrent term here (even too much). Hessler looks for artifacts wherever he goes from Manchuria to Taiwan passing through Sichuan and Nanking. It's artifacts that matter because they can always teach you something about the people who made them and about those who discovered or preserved them during difficult times such as the so called Cultural Revolution.

After reading "Oracle Bones" I can say I learned many things I didn't know about China and I do trust the author who told me about them here.
Unlike his wife Leslie T.Chang who was a bit clumsy in mixing up her point of view and family history with the personal stories of Chinese workers in "Factory Girls", Peter Hessler is very much at ease with the subject he chose and never loses the grip on its audience.

The fact that Hessler himself has now relocated (with formerly miss Chang) to Cairo and is currently becoming fluent in Arabic in order to report from the Middle East is just another unexpected step.
I wish I knew how to make it. Unfortunately, I'm hopeless with foreign languages. 
Oh well, I will let Peter come first!